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A Matter of Taste (part 1)

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A Matter of Taste (part 1)

Carrie Masek

What is taste? The easy answer: It's one of our five senses, the one centered in the mouth that helps us understand, and enjoy, the things we eat and drink. Sweet or salty often equal good, bitter may be poison and sour warns of under-ripe fruit. Savory promises something rich in protein. Bring on that rich broth!

Taste happens mostly on the tongue. The bumps on the tongue are called papillae and that's where taste buds are. For most people, there are more papillae (and taste buds) on the edge of the tongue than in the middle, but unlike those old diagrams in high school biology classes, all five basic tastes can be sensed by all parts of the tongue, though most people have more bitter sensors at the back of the tongue. Maybe to help keep them from swallowing something poisonous or spoiled.

Taste buds aren't limited to sensing just one taste, and they vary on which they are most sensitive to. Taste buds near the back of the throat may sense bitter first and strongest, then sour, then sweet, etc. Each taste bud taste things differently, even when they're on the same tongue. Every tongue has a unique number of taste buds, distributed in a similar, but far from identical fashion. No wonder we all taste things differently!

And that's the easy part of “taste.” When someone asks how something tastes, they're usually asking for more than a mix of five options. They're asking about flavor. Flavor is the result of combining different senses. If you've ever had a cold, you know how being unable to pull air through your stuffy nose changes the way food “tastes.” The flavor is flatter, less complex and much less enjoyable without the food's aroma added to the mix. Texture can also be part of the flavor of some foods as can the sensation of pain. Hot peppers anyone?

Coffee is made up of over 1200 different compounds that affect taste and aroma, and more are being discovered every day. Flavor-wise, it is the most complex beverage known today (sorry, wine!), and many factors go into the flavor of a good cup of coffee...factors that go a long way towards explaining why there are so many different opinions on how that cup of coffee should taste.

The good news? This is one case where very different opinions can all be absolutely right. 

Next time on A Matter of Taste: A basic look at the flavors and aromas in coffee: What they are, how they're developed, and where to find your favorites.

(Photo courtesy of Cafe Imports)